Which of my identities takes precedence?

Mort recently asked the following:

Where does cultural cognition reside?Is it within the individual or their cultural environ – the social assumptions and influences that we are surrounded by?
Which of my identities takes precedence, me the autonomous decision maker, or me the social role?

Thanks for reading and for your encouragement Mort. I think your question is very important. Much of our discussion about human interaction assumes the basic unit is the individual, somehow isolated from their environment. Economics has been particularly successful at describing the world in terms of the utility-maximising rational individual. Psychology has progressed on the assumption that much of what matters about human behaviour is to be found inside individual brains. As a broadly sociological theory , though, Cultural Theory is compatible with the sociological idea that the basic unit of study is not the individual alone, but the person-in-relationship. In other words it is held that what is distinctive is our connections, that without taking account of my context I can hardly make sense of ‘me’. For a long time this was problematic – there were many debates about the relative significance of ‘structure’ (the context) and ‘agency’ (the actions of people in, and sometimes in spite of, that context). Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory was just one of many attempts to connect the vision of the individual with the vision of the social. Most were rather unsatisfactory. A few changes in the last decade or so have shifted these debates quite dramatically.
First there is the rise of social network theory. This studies the links between people and has lately grown in importance. You can see that if you study the links you no longer ask ‘is it the individual or the group that matters?’ Studying the ties, the relationships, tells us something about both the groups and the individuals that we wouldn’t have grasped otherwise.
Second, there is the rise of evolutionary psychology. This argues that some of what we previously took to be humans making choices about their circumstances can actually be explained in biological terms. But note that just as it takes some of the explanatory power away from ‘society’, it also offers new scope for social factors to be influencing biology, for if adaptation is a key mechanism, then the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is a central consideration.
Third, sitting within this biologocal turn, but worth noting in its own right is the advance of game theory. This has shown that mechanisms other than genetic heredity and mutation can impact on evolution. Games are entirely social/relational and not biological, and yet they have the capacity to influence biology through evolution.
Each of these frameworks of research is reconfiguring, sometimes quite radically, our ideas about what makes up the ‘individual’ and what makes up the ‘social’. Many of our ideas from the past are no longer viable and we are still coming to terms with this. But also, many of these new ideas are contested within their own fields and many issues are far from settled.
Grid-group cultural theory was developed before some of the importance of these big shifts became apparent and basically sits within what evolutionary psychologists like to to call the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which they challenge. My own view is that it can make a distinctive contribution. I am exploring the idea that the four cultures described by Mary Douglas, her collaborators and followers can be reframed as examples of ‘ecologically adaptive heuristics’ as described by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.

Further, as I have previously written:

there surely is an important and little understood link between the human and the natural sciences to which Cultural Theory may contribute something. I’m pretty certain it has something reasonably substantial to contribute to what Paul E Griffiths and Karola Stotz call ‘biohumanities‘. My hunch, further, is that grid-group cultural theory might be open to game-theoretical modelling, and that this would then offer something to evolutionary theory, in the way that Axelrod’s evolution of cooperation did. Specifically it might further develop some of the ideas of Brian Skyrms on the Stag Hunt and the evolution of culture.

There is a good summary of Douglas and Ney’s Missing Persons (1998), which points to some of this.

And since you mentioned coutural cognition, you should go straight to the fount of wisdom on this: The Cultural Cognition Project.


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